Monthly Archives: October 2010

"The mirror of production" notes

I read Baudrillard’s The Mirror of Production recently and underlined a bunch of passages and scrawled lots of notes into the margins, but I wanted to move some of that material here, and see if any of it might prove useful down the road.

For Baudrillard, capital valorization is basically a process of investing signs with meaning, with “signs” designating the entire gamut of communicative objects and notions and practices. Commodities are only one example, or you could just redefine commodity as anything that can bear meaning within a structure of signification. Capital thus works to make everything signify and then to exploit that process, which extends consumption infinitely.

His specific target in this work, though, is the concept of production, the ideal of productivity, of turning things to account, of making things useful. “Everywhere man has learned to reflect on himself, to assume himself, to posit himself according to this scheme of production which is assigned to him as the ultimate dimension of value and meaning.” Use value is a consequence of exchange value, not some pre-existing value inherent in a good. Likewise for being useful, which is an aftereffect, not something inherent in activity — what counts as useful is tied to capitalist rationality. “Qualitative” accounts of labor only further mystify labor as the only “real” human practice.

This leads to a misrecognition of wealth as work: He quotes Marx: ” ‘Regarded materially, wealth consists only in the manifold variety of needs.’ Is this not the program of advanced capitalist society?” In other words, wealth consists of a surfeit of “meaningful” things for people to do. It doesn’t consist of a liberation from effort. Marxism is indicted for not moving beyond the fetishization of productivity and the manufacture of social needs as wealth. Baudrillard seems to have made up a Marx quote to condemn him, though this sounds like the “humanist Marx”: “In a higher stage of community society… work will not be simply a means of living but will become the prime, vital need itself.”

For Baudrillard, such a view is colluding with capital and transforming humans into alienated labor power in their very being.

in this Marxism assists the cunning of capital. It convinces men that they are alienated by the sale of their labor power, thus censoring the much more radical hypothesis that they might be alienated as labor power, as the “inalienable” power of creating value by their labor.

It seems to me that in this line of analysis, Baudrillard flirts with a kind of radical Luddism, a yearning to return to supposed freedoms of the stone age. At best, he espouses a Bataille-style advocacy of expenditure over productivity as the purpose of human life. The issue is “social wealth vs. symbolic wealth”:

There is no way of getting around this. Marxist labor is defined in the absolute order of a natural necessity and its dialectical overcoming as rational activity producing value. The social wealth produced is material; it has nothing to do with symbolic wealth which, mocking natural necessity, comes conversely from destruction, the deconstruction of value, transgression, or discharge. These two notions of wealth are irreconcilable, perhaps even mutually exclusive; it is useless to attempt acrobatic transfers.

Capitalism has moved beyond the natural-necessity realm into generating “value” from symbolic wealth, which mocks the Marxist notion of production for human survival and autonomy against nature. Production just reproduces capital in the position of nature, as the controlling limit, as the force determining human capabilities. Capitalist economics and markets make scarcity; they do not solve it. Markets reproduce conditions that make endless series of alienating exchanges necessary.

Even Marxism’s transcending perspective will always be burdened by counterdependence on political economy. Against Necessity it will oppose the mastery of Nature; against Scarcity it will oppose Abundance (“to each according to his needs”) without ever resolving either the arbitrariness of these concepts or their idealist overdetermination by political economy.

Hence Marxism fails to move us out of the grip of political economy, which is an ideology that reproduces all the immiseration of capitalism.

Anyway, Baudrillard argues this sanctification of labor infects even the notion of play and imagination, which are also made useful and concerned with “quality”. “The sphere of play is always merely the aesthetic sublimation of labor’s constraints.” Beauty is merely something to gamble on, productive of an exploitable result in meaning that justifies itself after the fact. Beauty is proved in its effects rather than a matter of intrinsic form. To put that in autonomista terms, work is opposed by immaterial labor that masquerades as non-work, but is also “productive,” making meanings and reproducing labor power in reified, appropriatable form. We are still producing ourselves in non-work time, and producing value, valorizing capital.


Baudrillard mentions “the symbolic destruction of all social relations not so much by the ownership of the means of production but by the control of the code.” He posits a “planned socialization by the code” via its being “monopolized” by the marketing apparatus — this institutes “consumption as control.” Since we are trapped at the level of symbolic consumption — since everything we do is interpreted as a consumerist, self-branding gesture — there is no possibility of affirming revolution. “Whatever one does, one can only respond to the system on its own terms, according to its own rules, answering it with its own signs.” This is the consequence of the forces that homogenize every act to a single signifying dimension — what Baudrillard means, I think, by monopoly essentially.

This is the heart of the critique of productivity:

Let us say that the system is structurally incapable of liberating human potentials except as productive forces, that is, according to an operational finality that leaves no room for the reversion of the loss, the gift, the sacrifice and hence for the possibility of symbolic exchange. The example of consumption is significant … the crisis in 1929 marked the point of asphyxiation: the problem was no longer one of production but one of circulation. Consumption became the strategic element; the people were henceforth mobilized as consumers; their “needs” became as essential as their labor power. By this operation, the system assured its economic survival at a fantastically expanded level. But something else is at play in the strategy of consumption. By allowing for the possibility of expanding and consuming, by organizing social redistribution (social security, allotments, salaries that are no longer defined as the strict economic reproduction of labor power) by launching advertising, human relations, etc., the system created the illusion of a symbolic participation (the illusion that something that is taken and won is also redistributed, given, and sacrificed)… In spite of all its good will (at least among those capitalist who are aware of the necessity of tempering the logic of the system in order to avoid an explosion in the near future), it cannot make consumption a true consummation, a festival, a waste. To consume is to start producing again. All that is expended is in fact invested; nothing is ever totally lost.

We can’t escape our consumption being productive at the level of the code; this reproduces capitalism and inscribes it deep into everyday life at the level of self-fashioning:

this also means that each individual, each consumer, is locked into the profitable manipulation of goods and signs for his own interest. He can no longer really waste his time in leisure.104 Inexorably, he reproduces, at his own level, the whole system of political economy: the logic of appropriation, the impossibility of waste, of the gift, of loss, the inexorability of the law of value.

Autonomy and participation are only illusory; they are circumscribed by structural system of production:

They would like to have participation, but participation is revealed each time as being only a better tactic for the wider reproduction of the system. The more autonomy is given to everyone, the more decision-making is concentrated at the summit. The autonomy of the faculties is, as we know, the best means of aligning them with capitalist productivity, just as the independence of colonial nations was the best means of perpetuating and modernizing their exploitation.

And so liberation is basically impossible where it has been reconceived as liberalization:

liberalization is only hyperrepressive. Needs which were once contingent and heterogeneous are homogenized and definitively rationalized according to the models of the system.